Category Archives: theory

Rethinking Community in Myanmar. New Book out soon!

Announced for November 2022 with NIAS Press:

Rethinking Community in Myanmar. Practices of We-Formation among Muslims and Hindus in Urban Yangon.

This is the first anthropological monograph of Muslim and Hindu lives in contemporary Myanmar. In it, I introduce the concept of “we-formation” as a fundamental yet underexplored capacity of humans to relate to one another outside of and apart from demarcated ethno-religious lines and corporate groups. We-formation complements the established sociological concept of community, which suggests shared origins, beliefs, values, and belonging. Community is not only a key term in academic debates; it is also a hot topic among my interlocutors in urban Yangon, who draw on it to make claims about themselves and others.

Invoking “community” is a conscious and strategic act, even as it asserts and reinforces stereotypes of Hindus and Muslims as minorities. In Myanmar, this understanding of community keeps self-identified members of these groups in a subaltern position vis-à-vis the Buddhist majority population. I demonstrate the concept’s enduring political and legal role since being imposed on “Burmese Indians” under colonial British rule. But individuals are always more than members of groups. I draw on ethnomethodology and existential anthropology to reveal how people’s bodily movements, verbal articulations, and non-verbal expressions in communal spaces are crucial elements in practices of we-formation. Through participant observation in mosques and temples, during rituals and processions, and in private homes I reveal a sensitivity to tacit and intercorporeal phenomena that is still rare in anthropological analysis.

Rethinking Community in Myanmar develops a theoretical and methodological approach that reconciles individuality and intersubjectivity and that is applicable far beyond the Southeast Asian context. Its focus on we-formation also offers insights into the dynamics of resistance to the attempted military coup of 2021. The newly formed civil disobedience movement derives its power not only from having a common enemy, but also from each individual’s determination to live freely in a more just society.

Who gets to be ‘Myanmar’ at the ICJ?

The Myanmar military will appear at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on 21 February 2022. I argue that their main interest does not lie in defending the country against genocide allegations. Read the full post at Allegra Lab.

In the case of The Gambia vs Myanmar currently pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Myanmar has been accused of having violated the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 by committing serious crimes against the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. In 2017, 800.000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh in an effort to escape the military’s atrocities.

The army’s attempted military coup of February 202

The case did not proceed after the Myanmar military attempted a coup on 1 February 2021. That night, Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were arrested and have since been accused of corruption, violations of the telecoms law, a state secrets act as well as covid-19 regulations. They are currently facing several years of imprisonment. The generals declared the November 2020 parliamentary elections as fraudulent and put a state of emergency in place. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is now heading the country. But not only the State Counsellor and the President, but the entire population of Myanmar has been held hostage: since February 2021, over 1.500 people have been murdered, thousands have been arrested and 450.000 people have become internally displaced, adding to the already high numbers of IDPs.

The National Unity Government

Members of the parliament elected in November 2020 formed the National Unity Government (NUG) while in hiding, now operating from undisclosed locations. They have established working relations with many states and international organizations, including the UN, where Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun supports the NUG and has been able to continue representing his country even though the military fired and charged him with high treason. While the military regime has received backing from China and Russia, most other countries have cut diplomatic and also economic ties with Myanmar under the current leadership. The question of who is representing Myanmar in the international community is a contested one which needs to be kept in mind when the case in The Hague continues on 21 February 2022.

Trying to benefit from a genocide accusation

Historically, the army has shown no interest in complying with international legal norms. The “rule of law”-paradigm has been a particular red rag for the Generals. Still, the Myanmar military will likely send delegates to attend the upcoming proceedings in The Hague. At the same time, the National Unity Government (NUG) has declared that United Nations Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun is the only person authorised to represent the country in The Hague.

However, for the generals, defending the country against the genocide accusation is largely a means to an end: they will use this opportunity to conduct themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar on a global stage. One should not fall for this trick, or not again: Already in April 2021 the military managed the feat that a general participated in an online-event of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), thereby bypassing the UN Secretary General’s own advice not to cooperate with the junta.

The ICJ is one of the principal legal organs for investigating violations of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, to which Myanmar is a signatory. To invite the junta to represent the country means to offer them the chance to use the court as a platform for strategic litigation where no longer the crime, but the performance of legitimacy will be key: When the ICJ reopens the case against Myanmar, the Rohingya genocide is not a primary concern of the generals. Rather, it is to be ‘Myanmar’. The ICJ has a historical opportunity to avoid such an ethical, political and legal failure.

Read the full post at Allegra Lab.

New publication: The state of custom

Together with Felix Girke I published an article in the German Journal of Law and Society / Zeitschrift für Rechtssoziologie as part of a special issue on the occasion of the journal’s 40-year anniversary.

Our article is a re-reading of the German anthropologist Gerd Spittler’s article “Dispute settlement in the shadow of Leviathan” (Streitschlichtung im Schatten des Leviathan) which was published in the journal in 1980 as part of the inaugural issue. In this article, Gerd Spittler strives to integrate the existence of state courts (the eponymous Leviathan’s shadow) in (post-)colonial Africa into the analysis on non-state court legal practices.

We walk the reader through his text (which has only been published in German) and then ask how has the situation he describes for (post-)colonial Africa in the early 1980s has changed in the last four decades. We relate his findings to contemporary debates in legal anthropology that investigate the relationship between disputing, law and the state. We also show through our own work in Africa and Asia, particularly in Southern Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan in what ways Spittler’s by now classical contribution to the field of legal anthropology in 1980 can be made fruitful for a contemporary anthropology of the state at a time when not only (legal) anthropology has changed, but especially the way states deal with putatively “customary” forms of dispute settlement.

The article is currently accessible through open access on the journal’s website.

Teaching Hannah Arendt in 2021

Hannah Arendt is one of the best-known political theorists of the 20th century. Her books and her theoretical arguments emerged in dialogue with ancient philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) ​​and modern German thinkers (Kant, Hegel), as well as with her own university teachers (Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers). Arendt never saw herself as a philosopher, but as a theoretician of the political. The topics she dealt with are today more topical than ever before and her books are being read across disciplines.

Hannah Arendt wrote on totalitarianism, statelessness, human community, and freedom and responsibility. In her work she processed her own experience as a Jew in Germany, as a stateless person in World War II, as a migrant in the USA, as a woman in male-dominated academia and as an attentive observer of an increasingly globalized post-war world.

This semester I am teaching some of her main theoretical themes to a group of BA students at the University of Kontsanz. We will not only embed Arendt’s texts in their historical context, but also to think through and with her arguments using current examples — ranging from the covid pandemic to state terror in Myanmar. Hannah Arendt was interested in the basic conditions of human existence: whenever these are questioned or radically transformed, her work offers a fruitful starting point.

“Why read Hannah Arendt now?” (2018) asks the author Richard Bernstein in his recent book. Answer: because she is “the thinker of the hour” (according to the German translation of the book).

Here is the Syllabus to my course (in German).

Webinar on legal pluralism in honour of Sally Engle Merry

Sally Merry was an active participant in the work of the project group “Legal Pluralism” at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology over many years of which I was a part from 2004 until 2010. In this conversation, Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, my former PhD supervisor, who co-headed the project group at the MPI from 2000 until 2012, and I talked about Sally’s role at the MPI, the importance of her work for legal pluralism in particular, and for legal anthropology in general.

We reviewed some of Sally’s theoretical ideas about the concept of legal pluralism: What was so provocative about it that Sally referred to its history as ‘an intellectual odyssey’? How did she explore it in her own ethnographic work? We also discussed the possibility to think through her more recent themes of research on indicators and quantification in regard to the concept of legal pluralism. To expand the conversation, we invited the audience to contemplate the potential of revisiting the numerous debates Sally has initiated with the concept of legal pluralism in mind.

Here is the full schedule of the webinar series that began on December 11 2020 and runs until May 21 2021.

Towards an anthropology of statelessness

As part of my tenure-track evaluation I held a public lecture at the end of April 2020 at the University of Konstanz on the topic of statelessness. I am currently in the process of drafting a funding application that would enable me to work towards developing how an anthropology of statelessness could look like.

I’d like to mention a couple of thoughts here to help me think through this potential new subdiscipline and to raise awareness of what I think is a structural lack at two different levels:

1) within the very concept of the nation-state and

2) within the anthropology of the state.

While the first concerns the prime object of analysis of the anthropology of the state, the second concerns a structural lack within how we have up to date researched that prime object.

I argue that statelessness has so far been approached as something ‘lacking’ in the constitution of those who do not have a nationality — for whatever reason (and there are many). Thus, activists, practitioners, (I)NGOs and other global actors have focussed their attention on ‘fixing’ the lack of the stateless by trying to make sure they, too, receive nationality (or citizenship; I won’t go into details here as to where these concepts overlap and where they don’t). In doing so, statelessness has remained an ‘anomaly’ — something that needs ‘fixing’. But we have neglected (almost entirely) in our scholarly analyses (these are mostly legal, political and almost none anthropological up to date) that it might not be the stateless who need ‘fixing’, but the nation-state itself. This argument has been made by the political theorist Phil Cole (2017), for example,  but needs to be taken seriously and thought through in legal and political anthropology as well for it might provide novel insights into the anthropology of the state.

Understanding statelessness as a structural lack of nation-states

In my tenure lecture, I have argued that statelessness cannot be researched at the ‘heart of the state’ (Fassin) or at its ‘margins’ (Das and Poole) where anthropology has so far located its objects of inquiry when studying the state in a transversal or tangential (Harvey) manner. It rather points to what I – with Lacan – would define as a structural lack in how nation-states are set up and operate. As such, this type of lack is not meant to be ‘filled’. As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up statelessnesswithin the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’. It is there on purpose, I argue. Treating statelessness not as anomaly, but as an intentional product in the way the state operates allows for new insights into the state as much as it will move our engagement with the phenomenon of statelessness beyond appeals of ‘fixing’.

As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up within the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’.

Despite the fact that we have international conventions in place since the mid 1950s, and despite the fact that more and more states have ratified these conventions and are closing legal loopholes: statelessness continues to exist and in many parts of the world, including Europe, its numbers are increasing. It remains one of the most overlooked human rights violations and it won’t go away, no matter how much the UN wants it to. The project I am currently drafting would bring legal scholars, anthropologists and practitioners together and study the structural lack of statelessness as an intrinsic component of the nation-state.

From stateless societies to stateless individuals

Anthropologists have historically dealt with stateless societies as part of Europe’s (and America’s) colonial politics of expansion and exploitation. Most ethnographic monographs centred on ‘acephalous’ ethnic groups or tried to grapple with understanding how groups organized and interacted with one another without a clear leadership or someone ‘in power’. After the demise of colonialism, such work has almost completely come to a halt; the state has come to tighten its grip on ethnic groups to such an extent that there is, by now, no place on earth that would not feel its eery presence. This includes hunter-gatherer societies (Sapignoli 2018) and sedentary tribes (Girke 2018) in rural Africa as much as agrarian groups in Southeast Asia (Scott 2010). However, statelessness has remained an immanent phenomenon worth anthropological attention. My argument is, however, that nowadays we need to focus on stateless individuals (in the sense of an anthropo-logy) more than on stateless societies (in the sense of an ethno-logy). While many groups are de facto stateless (e.g. Rohingya), the de jure status of statelessness is granted to individuals only. In line with an existential anthropology (Jackson and Piette 2015), my aim is to research statelessness not as a historical leftover of group encounters with the (colonial) state, but as an existential human condition that allows us to understands a structural lack of the contemporary nation-state.

Stay tuned …

 

 

Harmony Ideology at The Hague. New Blog Post for Public Anthropologist

Together with Felix Girke, I have just published another op-ed piece on the genocide case currently pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. There, The Republic of The Gambia has filed a case against Myanmar, accusing the country’s army of having committed genocide of Muslim Rohingya. We have published on this issue also at OpenDemocracy, focusing on the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who has decided to act as the “Agent” of a high-profile team of lawyers. While her status as an ‘icon of democracy’ is unbroken within the country, especially in Western countries, commentators are grappeling with what they perceive to be a sudden and unexpected shift in her personality since she became “state counsellor”. However, as I have argued in 2017 already, this is in line with how she has always been doing politics.

Yangon, 10. Dec 2019. © B. Mette-Starke

In our blog post for Public Anthropologist, we take a look at Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at the ICJ on December 11 2019. We argue  that she employs “harmony ideology,” a concept coined by the legal anthropologist Laura Nader in the 1990s, based on her work among the Talean Zapotec in southern Mexico in the 1960s. Later, Nader applied her new terminology to so-called alternative dispute resolution (ADR)-cases in the United States of America.

“Harmony ideology”, so Nader, needs to be understood as a counterhegemonic force with which her Zapotec villagers tried to keep the Mexican state at bay. By pretending that they are a harmonious people and capable of dealing with their disputes internally, they tried to fend off any outside interference. In ADR-cases, Nader showed how “harmony ideology” was used to “outsource” dispute cases that judges thought to be too irrelevant for to be decided in state courts. In the case of Myanmar at the ICJ, however, Felix Girke and I argue that

Aung San Suu Kyi acted as if her country were a southern Mexican village, needing protection from illegitimate legal governance that interfered with its internal affairs, while at the same time embodying the very state apparatus that is now internationally accused of having committed genocide against its own population.

While the Talean Zapotec might have had effective measures for local dispute resolution and good reasons to keep the state courts at bay, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya and the poor record of Myanmar to police itself suggest that Suu Kyi’s harmony ideology at the ICJ is sorely misplaced, we argue. Read the full post over at Public Anthropologist.

Anthropology and existentialism. Back to the individual?

Next to a BA-level course on Indigeneity and Law, I will be teaching in our Master’s Program “Anthropology and Sociology” a thematic course on anthropology and existentialism. After having spent a couple of months in France (Paris, in particular) this year and last year, living in direct vicinity to Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s former “writing ground” (Café Le Flore, Café Les Deux Magots) in St. Germain, I became more and more interested in combining anthropological reasoning with existential philosophy. Next to Sartre, De Beauvoir and other French intellectuals of the mid-20th century, I encountered the work of Albert Piette (who teaches at Uni Nanterre in Paris) whom I only knew as Michael Jackson’s “sidekick” from “What is existential anthropology?” (Berghahn 2015). I slowly read through his oeuvre, most of it only available in French, but some of it already translated into English by now. His creative way of approaching an anthropo-centric anthropology via what he calls ‘phenomenography’ is as innovative as it is radical. He argues against ethnomethodology, against social interactionism and against every other theory that privileges collectivity rather than individuality.

Since the best way to truly understand theory is to teach it, I am looking forward to my seminar where the question “What role does the individual actually play in anthropology?” will stand at the center of our inquiry. We will see that this question needs to be answered differently depending on what decade and what anthropological tradition we are talking about. We will be reading classical  anthropological literature (Malinowski, Benedict, Geertz, Obeyesekere, Rosaldo, Rapport, Lutz and Abu-Lughod) in order to understand how often the individual rather stood in anthropology’s way on the path towards ‘society’, ‘structure’ or ‘systems of meaning’. We will counter these views not only with recent existential anthropological literature, but also with literature from neighbouring disciplines such as philosophy (the old French classics) and existential psychoanalysis (Chodorow, Yalom).

Last but not least I hope to generate  insights into the nature of the relationships we develop with our key interlocutors during field research: Does a stronger focus on the individual’s existence require a change in the way we approach our ‘field’ and collect our ‘data’? How do we reflect on our own role as individuals in the field?

Here is the syllabus to the seminar:

Upcoming term 2019/20: Teaching on Indigeneity and Law

This winter term I will be teaching a course on indigeneity and law for our BA-students at the University of Konstanz.

While in the colonial era the alleged “backwardness” of  “natives” or even  “savages” was taken as an opportunity to deny them their right to their land, today “indigeneity” is a term used by indigenous people themselves in order to assert their rights (to land, natural resources, cultural self-determination, etc.).

In this seminar, we explore the nexus of indigenity and law by reading anthropological texts on indigeneity (and related concepts such as ethnicity). On the other hand, we learn about legal sources for such claims-making through which the rights of indigenous peoples get articulated in recent decades (for example UN resolutions, current court decisions, …).

We will also read two different types of (auto-) ethnographic texts: on the one hand the life story of a Guatemalan indigenous woman, Rigoberta Menchú (Burgos / Menchú 1984) and on the other the recent monograph of the indigenous anthropologist Audra Simpson (2014) “Mohawk Interruptus. Political life across the borders of settler states “to the Kahnawà: ke (Haudenosaunee / Iroquois Confederation) in Quebec.

The aim of the seminar is to be able to trace  historical and current connections between processes of Othering and those of Self-culturalization in the name of “indigeneity” from an anthropological perspective, as well as to understand the central role of law in doing so.

Here is the syllabus of the seminar.

Thematic Thread for Allegra Lab on Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance

For Allegra Lab, I curated a thematic thread on the topic of Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance. Together with Catherine Allerton, Alice Wilson and Siri Lamoureaux we explore these categories in a total of four blog posts with a focus on who can claim justice on whose behalf and in regard to the various ways in which uncertainty and accountability are being processed.

This thematic thread evolved out of a workshop on Claiming justice after conflict. The stateless, the displaced and the disappeared at the margins of the state, co-organized by Yazid Ben-Hounet (Paris) and myself. The presenters consisted of anthropologists and sociologists and convened for a full day on March 15, 2019, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

In my introduction to this week-long thematic thread, I show in what ways statelessness, displacement and disappearance have become familiar and inescapable features of contemporary politics worldwide. The question of who can claim justice on whose behalf is first of all a question of representation, but also touches on scale, resources and access.

In the first post, Catherine Allerton engages with statelessness and the problem of the invisibility of migrant children and their families in Sabah, Malaysia. Their stories are about vulnerability as much as they are about resilience. Employing the concept of “documentary pragmatism,” Allerton explains that for her interlocutors, the goal is “being safe” rather than being documented.

statelessness

In  my own post I explore the relation between accountability and statelessness. First, by investigating the case of expert activists in Europe who have declared a fight against statelessness by trying to hold nation states accountable. Second, I look at asylum cases in the UK where stateless individuals have to give accounts of themselves. I argue that while expert activists demand accountability from nation states, it is nation states who demand accountability from stateless people.

 

If people cannot make claims vis-à-vis the state at all, we pondered the question of what they might be doing instead. One option that Alice Wilson explores in her post is a shift in the very discussions people are having about disappearance: in her case in the context of Oman’s southern Dhufar region. She argues that the possibilities for claims-making, and its potential success, vary within different political environments.

Finally, Siri Lamoureaux explores in her post on displaced Nuba women in Sudan women’s options such as public shaming and the accusation of perpetrators by the so-called “Nubian Queens.” In light of the recent events her post bears particular urgency. Drawing on long-term fieldwork, she then asks “Where are the Nuba queens”, namely those women who “due to (pre/post)colonial histories of divide and rule, and unequal centre-periphery socioeconomic relations, have never donned a white towb?” that has become so emblamatic of the ongoing protests.  “Without denying the sacrifice and suffering of elite women in the protests, displaced women have suffered immeasurably from the Sudanese government’s policies”, she argues.

You can find all posts of this thematic thread here.